The Eat with Care blog

Writing about humane farming issues by Caroline Abels, founder of Humaneitarian. Your comments and feedback welcome. (All replies are screened and posted, if thoughtful and respectful.)

Action Opportunity: Improve living standards for organic poultry

June 2, 2016

Free-range turkeys at an Applegate company farm

Free-range turkeys at an Applegate company farm

You might be surprised to hear that certified organic chickens aren’t required to have access to pasture and may not have enough space in which to express natural behaviors, such as perching, scratching, and foraging.

It’s true. Organically raised egg-laying hens don’t necessary get the kind of life pictured in the photo above. Thankfully, they’re not trapped in cages, and they get more than “cage-free” birds do because they’re allowed outside, but as Dena Jones of the Animal Welfare Institute writes,

Over the past decade, a half dozen or so large, primarily conventional egg corporations entered the organic market by building small porches onto the sides of their sheds and declaring that they were providing outdoor access for hens. Unfortunately, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) went along with the deception, bringing us to a point where up to half of all eggs sold as USDA organic come from birds who never set foot outside on soil.

Now, a rare opportunity has arisen for ordinary citizens to help improve the living conditions of American poultry, at least a little bit.

The USDA is currently accepting (until June 13) public feedback on proposed changes to the federal organic standards that would provide organic egg-laying hens with more space and access to soil when outside (though still no vegetation).

If you’d like to make your voice heard in support of this rule change, you can do so before June 13 on this page, via the Animal Welfare Institute, or on this page, via Farm Forward. After you submit your petition, let us know you did by posting below.

Please note that not everyone in the organic community favors the proposed rules, because they don’t go far enough. You might agree with what the Cornucopia Institute has to say about that, in which case you might like to sign their petition, too. However, a rule change would at least improve the lives of millions of animals on the ground and incrementally push the federal organic standards a little higher.

Here’s some of what the proposed new regs would require (via the Organic Trade Association):

  • Outdoor access for poultry cannot have a solid roof overhead
  • Outdoor space requirements for poultry must be less than 2.25 pounds of hen per square foot of outdoor space
  • Outdoor space must have 50% soil cover
  • Indoor space requirements for poultry must be less than 2.25 pounds of hen per square foot of indoor space (allowances up to 4.5 pounds per square foot are made for pasture based and aviary style production systems)

Keep in mind that the current proposals cover other animal welfare issues, too, but the poultry ones appear to be the most significant.

Also keep in mind that “certified organic” doesn’t necessarily mean what we think it means. Always check. Always inquire.